Is an unsuspecting world ready?

COLUMBIA, Mo 2/10/14 (Analysis) -- Two journalists known for tackling tough issues have taken the gloves off over a Columbia export that's getting a notorious reputation: powerful developers.

"How Columbia developer Jeffrey E. Smith funnels his money to Missouri Speaker of the House Tim Jones (R) Exhibit A in the drive for ethics and campaign finance reform in Missouri," St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial page editor Tony Messenger wrote in a January profile of Smith's high-dollar donations to state politicians.

Across the country, veteran broadcast journalist Cindy Vandor -- who won awards for covering the L.A.-Rodney King riots -- is reminding that citizens facing poorly-planned developments are not unique to Columbia.  A longtime Malibu, Calif. resident, Vandor is taking on the City of Malibu and Paige Laurie Dubbert, the Wal-Mart heiress and Columbia native, over what Vandor calls "illegal and dangerous loading zones" Laurie-Dubbert built for her shopping center.

Better known for a plagiarism scandal that forced Mizzou administrators to remove her name from the arena her parents, Bill and Nancy Laurie, helped build, Laurie-Dubbert later surrendered her USC degree.   She and her uncle -- Columbia developer Stan Kroenke -- live and work in Malibu part of the year. 

Exasperation -- over the way money buys influence, conceals the truth, and endangers the public -- is evident in both Messenger's editorial and Vandor's testimony before the Malibu Planning Commission.

"What is that thing at the corner of Pacific Coast Highway and Trancas Canyon Road?" Vandor asks the Commission about one of the loading zones.  Her voice resonates with a bite that would raise eyebrows here.  
"I don't have a clue," one of the Commissioners responds. "Looks like a loading zone to me."

"Why was Paige Dubbert allowed to build it and what are you all going to do about it?" Vandor fires back. 
A former Columbia Daily Tribune columnist known for his hard-hitting editorials, Messenger wants to know why Jeff Smith is allowed to sneak large donations past Missouri Ethics Commission rules.   He's done it for years, Messenger claims, to save and expand tax credit programs designed to help low-income senior citizens that have made Smith one of Missouri's richest men.
"Mr. Smith is using Missouri’s opaque campaign finance laws to hide his outsized influence that allows him to pad his profits," Messenger writes. "He gets nonprofits, senior citizens, and the disabled to fight his battles for him."

Especially galling are the names Smith hides behind:  "Advocacy for Special Needs," "Coalition for Disability Rights" and "Alliance for Elderly Health Care."  It's all part of what Messenger has characterized as a "dirty money-laundering business"  designed to conceal campaign contributions.

The public impact of money-driven decisions is evident to both Vandor and Messenger. 

Pacific Coast Highway is one of America's most dangerous, Vandor tells her Planning Commission.  To permit a loading zone on it that violates building codes is to invite deadly accidents.  

Her testimony, however, brings mostly dismissive sighs from Commissioners, who cannot explain why the loading zones were permitted.   "Act One of the Malibu drama," a Commissioner exclaims after Vandor's testimony concludes. 

The Smith-driven tax credits, meanwhile, "have grown so large that they are choking off other budget needs," Messenger explains.  "When the state parcels out tax dollars, folks like Mr. Smith get their take before schoolchildren. Before college students. Before the mentally ill.  That’s just wrong."

-- Mike Martin for the Columbia Heart Beat